General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Possible ancient Mexican marble game, mural of Tepantitla, Teotihuacan

Pre-Hispanic marbles, or jacks?

The murals at Teotihuacan - a city revered by the Aztecs/Mexica as the birth place of the current Fifth Sun era - are rightly famous, and rich in detail. In the important murals depicting Tlalocan (a watery paradise ruled by Tlaloc, god of rain) - at the Tepantitla complex - are dozens of intriguing, cartoon-like little figures. The interpretation of the scenes in the murals is still very much ‘open’ and widely debated today. Many scholars have commented on the ‘ballgame players’ who feature in the mural (example, pic 1). However the figure above, who has escaped the limelight, appears to be playing a version of our marbles game, and we decided to investigate further... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: ‘Ballgame player’, Tepantitla mural, Teotihuacan
Pic 1: ‘Ballgame player’, Tepantitla mural, Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

In his pioneering book Games and Sport in Old Mexico (1969) the leading Mexican historian and archaeologist Roman Piña Chan wrote, referring to chichinadas or marbles (see pic 2):-

This kind of game may also have its origin in Teotihuacán, for there is a scene on the wall painting of the Tlalocan showing two persons each with six globes or balls. There is another globe in the centre. The amusement appears to have consisted in throwing the balls or globes one after the other and trying to hit the centre globe - something like a game of marbles. Whoever succeeded got the balls thrown by his opponent, or the number of points was noted down. Bets may also have been laid...

Pic 2: Possible ancient Mexican marble game, mural of Tepantitla, Teotihuacan
Pic 2: Possible ancient Mexican marble game, mural of Tepantitla, Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

[After the Conquest] a throwing line was marked in, a ball or a round bone was laid some distance away from the line and the player tried to hit it with other balls. Whoever scored a hit first won the prize...

The experts we’ve consulted - principally Maestra María Luisa Castillo and Dr. Francisco Rivas Castro - tell us that the scene we show here could depict a form or either
marbles (chichinadas in Mexican Spanish, from the Náhuatl chichinoa, to scupper someone in a game) or
jacks (matatena or mapepena in Mexican Spanish, from the Náhuatl maitl (hand) and temalloa, to throw and pick up stones, or pepena, to gather).

Some things never change...
BTW, the large spiral-shaped symbol in front of each player is a speech scroll!

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: Tepantitla, Teotihuacán. Pórtico 11. Mural del Tlalocan. Detalle. Foto: Ricardo Alvarado Tapia, 2007 (courtesy Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM)
• Pic 1: Tepantitla mural, Ballplayer A, photo by Daniel Lobo (Wikipedia)
• Pic 2: photo by/courtesy of James Q Jacobs.

(With thanks to Ma. de Jesús Chávez Callejas, Mtra. Fernanda Salazar and Mtra. Ma. Luisa Castillo, Proyecto La pintura mural prehispánica en México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM, Mexico City).

Explore the murals in much greater detail
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